Si Frumkin, a survivor of Dachau and a prominent Los Angeles textile manufacturer, heard the question and it reminded him of the days before the Holocaust.
A man of direct action, Frumkin founded the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews in 1968 and over the next two decades would not leave the issue alone. For years his inventive activism could be found in protests at a variety of Soviet cultural events.
When the Bolshoi Ballet came to town, he distributed fake programs outside the Shrine Auditorium telling folks to enjoy the show but added a message about repression. When Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev visited President Nixon at the Western White House in San Clemente, Frumkin released 5,000 balloons with the message "Let My People Go." He hired a helicopter to fly over the Super Bowl with a banner: "Save Soviet Jewry."
Frumkin, who did more than anyone else in the United States to focus attention on the struggle of Soviet Jews, died Friday of cancer at Providence Tarzana Medical Center. He was 78.
"Shaming the free world, especially our government, into doing the right thing was Si's cause," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who as a UCLA student founded the California Students for Soviet Jews at the same time Frumkin founded his group.
"Nothing was more abhorrent to Si than free people sitting on their hands while others in need of help suffered," Yaroslavsky said of his longtime friend.
He was born Simas Frumkinas on Nov. 5, 1930, in what is now Kaunas, Lithuania, to a family of affluent and assimilated Jews who were not actively religious. His father was a prominent automobile and motorcycle dealer.
The Communists took over his father's business in 1940. The Germans went to Kaunas in 1941 and herded the Jewish community into a ghetto ringed by barbed wire. When the ghetto was evacuated in 1944, Si and his father were sent to Dachau. His mother was sent to Poland.
He and his father were forced to work in an aircraft hangar and manufacturing plant for the Nazis.
"I was just 13," Frumkin told The Times some years ago. "I carried bags of cement. I unloaded brass. I carried metal rod for construction."
Frumkin's father died 20 days before Dachau was liberated in 1945. Frumkin studied in Switzerland and England before immigrating briefly to Venezuela, where he was reunited with his mother. He arrived in New York in 1949 and graduated from New York University in 1953.
Shortly after graduation, he moved to Los Angeles and eventually took over Universal Drapery Fabrics, a downtown textile company. At night, he earned a master's degree in history at Cal State Northridge. Once the plight of Soviet Jews caught his attention, he focused on activism.
He tried to engage the local Jewish Federation Council to take an activist role in the name of Soviet Jewry but was met with resounding silence. He was told not to rock the boat as the U.S. was trying to achieve a level of rapprochement with the Soviet Union.
From the late 1960s on, he relentlessly pressed government officials to pressure Soviet officials to open doors for Soviet emigration. He started an "adopt a refusenik family" campaign across the country, using the term applied to Soviet Jews trying to leave. He organized demonstrations that got thousands of people into the streets. He burned Soviet flags and was accused of using intimidation in lobbying travel agents to stop promoting trips to the Soviet Union.
"Virtually everything that was done emanated from Si's head," Yaroslavsky told The Times some years ago.
In that article, Yaroslavsky recalled the occasion when a Soviet freighter arrived in the Port of Los Angeles. The two men rented a motorboat and headed out to the ship. Their plan was to paint on its side a sign reading "Let the Jews Go." But how to stay in place when they cut the motorboat's engine? Frumkin solved the problem, Yaroslavsky said, by mooring the boat to the freighter with a toilet plunger.
By 1976, more than 72,000 Jews had been allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Many came to America and Southern California, and Frumkin turned his attention to helping them. He was a founding member of the Assn. of Soviet Jewish Emigres and offered guidance on how to write resumes and go on job interviews. He set up clothing and household giveaways as well as a network of free healthcare providers.
"He acted as an ombudsman to a large degree," his son Michael said Sunday. "He explained American culture to the emigres and told them how to get things done."
In his later years, Frumkin also worked to help Ethiopian Jews emigrate and most recently was involved with the Israel Christian Nexus, an organization of Jews and evangelical Christians that supports Israel's right to exist.
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Ella, and two grandchildren. His son Larry died in 1999.
"He was an integral part of who I am and . . . with the exception of my own parents and family, no one has had so profound an impact on me," said Yaroslavsky, who will deliver the eulogy for Frumkin at 2 p.m. today at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Hollywood.
Instead of flowers, his family asks that contributions be made to the organization he founded, the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, P.O. Box 1542, Studio City, CA 91614.